Slipping Standards, Serious Consequences
The growing number of students scoring "proficient" on Ohio's battery of K-12 state assessments (and a slew of tests in other states) may, in part, be attributed to some weak-kneed tests and low cut scores for passage. A new report from the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences (see here) compared student scores in fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading on the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)--considered the "gold standard" of assessments by many--with those on myriad state tests across the nation. The results suggest that too many state accountability policies--Ohio's included--pay only lip service to claims of high standards and rigor.
When 32 state proficiency standards for fourth-grade reading were placed on the NAEP scale, none met the NAEP's minimum proficient cut score. A whopping 24 failed to meet even the NAEP's "Basic" cut score. Eighth-grade reading fared only slightly better. Again, none of the 34 state proficiency standards matched up to the NAEP's (only Wyoming's and South Carolina's came close)--and 13 fell below the NAEP's "Basic" standard. In fourth-grade math, two of the 33 states analyzed met or exceeded the NAEP's proficiency standard--Wyoming and Massachusetts. The eighth-grade math analysis saw three out of 36 states meet or exceed the NAEP standard. Yet in both math comparisons, most states hovered between NAEP's "Basic" and "Proficiency" standards, and more than a few languished in the nether regions below "Basic."
Count Ohio's proficiency standards in fourth- and eighth-grade reading among the bottom-dwellers. In fourth- and eighth-grade math, the Buckeye State's standards improve slightly, though still fall squarely between "Basic" and "Proficient" on the NAEP scale. This "proficiency gap" explains why in 2005-06, Ohio deemed 77 percent of its fourth-graders and 69 percent of its eighth-graders as proficient or above in math, while the 2005 NAEP pegged those percentages at just 43 (for grade 4) and 34 (for grade 8). In reading, only 35 percent of fourth-graders and 36 percent of eighth-graders scored proficient or above on the 2005 NAEP--in stark contrast to Ohio's 2005-06 figures of 77 percent in both grades.
To be sure, the problem is a national one (see here), and Ohio is by no means the most lenient of states. (Tennessee's proficiency standards plumb the depths at all four grade levels, and Mississippi's abysmally low fourth-grade reading standard deserves a scale all its own.) Yet the marked differences in rigor evidenced by this study have serious consequences down the line. Consider the recent drama over Ohio seniors failing to graduate because they could not pass all portions of the Ohio Graduation Test (OGT), a 10th grade level (see here and here). In Cleveland, over 1,300 district seniors--43 percent of the senior class-- fell into this category (see here).
The solution, one that would help Ohio and other states reconcile assessment rigor with real-world expectations, may lie in one set of national standards and assessments (as we've argued before --see here and here). With a common set of academic expectations, students in Ohio and across the nation could also be held to a common definition of proficiency--one that might very well swell the ranks of Ohioans who not only don cap-and-gown, but also graduate ready for college and the global marketplace.